Achtung Leopards in Syria! Full analysis of the Leopard 2A4TR in Syria

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Operation Euphrates Shield, Syria
  3. Details about Leopard 2s in Syria
  4. Leopard 2s on the stage
  5. Does the cat have a thick fur?
  6. Final analysis and recommendations

Also do not forget that we offer military analysis and OSINT services.

Introduction

In this analysis we are going to have a closer look at the performance of the Turkish Leopard 2A4TR tanks in Syria, to do that we are going to know the machine itself, the doctrine and the environment where it has operated and other things thanks to a very detailed OSINT analysis.

In 2005 Turkey acquired 298 second-hand Leopard 2A4s from Germany, later those were called Leopard 2A4TRs and they have just a slight difference in comparison with the originals, that is the addition of improved air filters, something very important for the dusty terrain generally faced in the Middle East.

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Leopard 2A4TR in Syria.

Operation Euphrates Shield, Syria

At the end of August 2016 Turkey launched an offensive with rebel groups from FSA at the north of Syria mainly against the Islamic State but with an eye kept on the Kurdish.

At first M-60Ts were deployed but after some time of rumors and Leopard 2s near the Syrian frontier on the 8th of December 2016 the first batch of Leopard 2A4TRs were seen near the town of Al-Bab firing its guns against ISIS VBIEDs.

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Before the final apparition of the Leopard 2A4s in Syria images like this merged near the Turkey-Syria border.

In theory a few armored and mechanized units probably totalizing no more than two brigades were deployed in Syrian territory, but deployed is not the same as used in the offensive, because it was the FSA infantry and technicals who normally led the attack what resulted in a  new hybrid warfare mixture for the Turkish army.

First of all Syrians speak Arabic, while Turkish speak Turkish even using different alphabets so the communication was not very fluent what is very important if you want to take advantage of the firepower that tanks and artillery offer, also there was lack of training and morale among FSA because this group was mainly comprised of men recruited from refugee camps in Turkey with a fickle morale to fight.

Finally but not less important as Russia or USA have done in Syria the Turkish do not use their conventional units as the bulk of the force, in spite of that they stay in reserve and just some support units are sent to the front, this is important because it means that they are far away from exploiting their full offensive potential in the battlefield.

Let’s see what Heinz Guderian, the father of the so called Blirzkrieg can tell us from his book Achtung-Panzer! first published in Germany on 1937.

“This force [in reference to armored forces and tanks] that actually has the biggest offensive power has also the right to use this power under its own rules, and so anywhere it is empoyed it will be the main force and the others will depend on them ” 

The tank is normally the central piece of the ground warfare but to fully exploit its firepower, mobility and protection it must have an accompanying force to reach all the possbilities that it offers.

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When tanks are badly accompained and operated they become very vulnerable that is why ISIS has been able to defeat a small Turkish Leopard 2s unit and capture its cats.

If a high intensity campaign would have been done against ISIS the mechanized or armored forces would have been comprised of the next accompanying elements: Mechanized infantry, engineers, self-propelled artillery and air support, all of them used at the same time, in high numbers and at the key points of the ISIS defenses to break their lines and continue the advance cutting their rearguard until Raqqa, but this has never happen, but why? Because as we said Turkey is acting like Russia or the USA and they just do not want to do that kind of high intensity but also high losses warfare, in spite of that they prefer to use their tanks as a mere support for the FSA avoiding to use them in the attack to deeply penetrate ISIS lines alongside a combined arms force.

This is the first main reason for the Leopard 2A4s losses in Syria, they are not being used as tanks must be used, they can not be just mobile guns to support rebels because for that purpose a cheap T-55 captured from SAA depots or even a technical would be nearly as useful as an expensive Leopard 2.

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Use an advanced tank like a Leopard 2A4 just to provide fire support from the distance is an obvious underutilization of a very capable tool.

But what else did Heinz Guderian told us 80 years ago? Let’s have a look:

“The rights claimed result in the next tactical needs:

  • Surprise
  • Massive employ
  • Suitable terrain”

Surprise was not reached in Al Bab and in fact it is the opposite, the Turkish low profile performance  letting most of the weight of the fight to fall on the FSA and doing just a slow advance was not going to result in any surprise.

The massive employ was not reached because tanks were used in small units, normally just platoons of three or four tanks and sometimes even individually.

Suitable terrain, the only thing that did not depended on the Turkish High Command was given by the nature of the Syrian terrain with a lot of plains and ground with just some snow during the winter.

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Leopard 2A4s were deployed in certain numbers but were not used in mass nor concentrated.

Teacher Guderian said “The high speed of the armored attack is essential to determine the results of the combat”

Most of all of the basic rules about the use of armored forces were not applied by Turkish military planners probably due to political pressure to avoid losses and because the chief of the operation, the Lieutenant general Zekai Aksakallı is from SF so he is not very familiar with the usage of armored forces.

So what was the only way of use of the Leopard 2A4TRs in Syria? Just go to one position overlooking the area and give some fire support with the help of a link officer between the FSA and the tanks or just by the own capabilities of the steel monsters.

The lack of ground reconnaissance and link with the rebels ultimately led to the Leopard 2A4 crews to take some bad deccissions and place their tanks at vulnerable positions, those ones were observated by ISIS and its experienced tank hunter units equipped with ATGMs that ultimately were able to hit the MBTs on the exposed flanks.

While we will have a closer look about protection in the section “Does the cat have a thick fur?”  first of all we want to point a few things.

Most of the missiles that hit the Leopard 2s probably were 9M113 Konkurs that attacked from the flanks, anyone with some knowledge about this subject knows that there is no modern MBT able to resist these kind of missiles at the sides if they have no ERA or cage armor attached. Apart from that German designers relied in isolate the most sensible compartments that could led to a catastrophic explosion in case of perforation, especially thinking about fuel and ammunitions.

If a tank like a Leopard 2A4 get an ATGM impact on the side the damages are unavoidable but limitable thanks to automatic fire supression systems, heavily protected ammunition boxes, fireproof garments for the crew etc At this point we can say that Leopard 2A4 resisted well those terrible impacts taking in to account that heavy damages are mostly unavoidable in a situation with these characteristics.

Details about Leopard 2s in Syria

Before being sent to the frontline most of the Leopard 2s were painted with a new arid scheme camouflage but a few Leopard 2s even maintain their old green scheme as we can see in the images.

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While they are uncommon there are still some green Leopard 2A4s in Syria.

While Syria is in general a dry country the north gets some snow and very low temperatures during the coldest months of the winter but in fact that is not a problem for the Leopard 2s that are very well suited for low temperatures.

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Syria is not as hot as some would expect.

Also the Leopard 2 can mount a 7,62 mm MG-1 or MG-3 on the turret in front of the commanders hatch, those MGs tend to use an AA sight but in this case it wouldn’t have sense for Turkish crews and so they probably use the normal sights. This machine gun is especially famous because of its deadly rate of fire around 1.200 bullets per minute. However it is a feature that we have seen just in a few cases while most of the turret MGs have been removed.

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Covered by a plastic is the MG-1/3 machine gun over the turret.

About the ammunition used, as far as what has been released we have seen M325 HEAT-MP-T (Multipurpose Tracer) rounds along with advanced Turkish (MKEK) copy of the KE German rounds DM-43 or DM-53 and Israeli KE APFSDS M322 or M328.

  • KE or APFSDS – Kinnetic Energy (Only against very well protected targets)
  • HEAT –  High Explosive Anti Tank (Multipurpose)
  • HE –  High Explosive (only against soft targets)

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In theory the DM-43s or DM-53s of the last group of images don’t exactly match with a German produced round, in our opinion those are DM-43 or DM-53 rounds produced by MKEK because we have find 120 mm APFSDS-T KE rounds produced by MKEK as we can see on the image below, but these rounds do not appear in the MKEK webpage.

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Under the M325 round we can see cartridge containers for 120 mm APFSDS-T  rounds produced by MKEK, this caliber is just for tanks and the type APFSDS is just for Kinnetical Energy (KE) rounds.

The use of HE and HEAT rounds should be the rule in Syria as far as they are the best suited to deal with personal behind field fortifications or walls, and the HEAT can even engage some armor that ISIS could rarely deploy, like BMP-1s or certain outdated tanks.

The KE APFSDS are penetrators designed to pass through the armor of advanced tanks like T-72s or T-90s and they are no effective against buildings, technicals or lightly armroed vehicles, for example during 1991 Desert Storm we saw that M829 or M829A1 KE rounds were able to penetrate from  side to side of a T-72 and left the tank without destroy anything, so if they can go across all the vehicle and get out whithout affecting it, why deploy them in Syria?

As we all know ISIS has been making a massive use of SVBIEDs mounted in armored civilian vehicles moving at high speed, those are pretty destructive and difficult to hit targets while HEAT and HE projectiles could deal with VBIEDs armors their trajectories are much parabolic because of their lower muzzle velocity in comparison with KE rounds which are around 1.600 m/s in comparison with around 1.000 m/s of HEAT or HE rounds.

This is important for several reasons, for example the DM-53 (KE)  is much faster than the M325 (HEAT) and so it has a much more flat and easy to aim trajectorie what leads to a higher level of accuracy and rate of fire both very important capabilities to deal with VBIEDs. But at this point the sharpest might argue that as I have said before this rounds tend to penetrate all the armor and leave the vehicle without cause any important damage, while this is true we must remember that VBIEDs are loaded with huge amounts of explosives and so the probability that the projectile hits one of them during the perforation is very high.

In most world doctrines including the Turkish, tank platoons are comprised of 4 tanks each with one leading tank, however sometimes some especial forces use platoons of three tanks each, this is for example more typical in expeditionary forces like marines or naval infantry units.

What is strange is that at some point we have observed what appears to be Turkish tank units of 3 tanks each while it would have sense because you do not need to mass a lot of vehicles to fight ISIS but rather be flexible with the vehicles you have, but anyway we are far from absolutely sure about this point.

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Leopard 2s on the stage

Almost all of the fighting where the Leopard 2s have been involved was linked to the battle for Al-Bab town, and especially about the clashes for its hospital located at the west of the town.

Desastre Hospital
Al-Bab town.
Desastre Hospital1
Al-Bab hospital.

For recovery purposes the main vehicle is the M88A1 originally based on the M-48/M-60 powerplants, while the A1 is an improved version with a more powerful engine.

We do not know the numbers of M88A1s deployed but what is sure is that they have not done or they have not been able to do a good job at certain times, because we have been able to see how Leopard 2A4s destroyed or heavily damaged were not recovered event a mptnh after the event, what says a lot about coordination and maybe about the ISIS pressure in the area.

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M88A1 in Syria.

At the moment we have been able to verify the existence of 43 Leopard 2A4TRs deployed in Syria along two batches: The first one was comprised of 18 tanks that were seen on 8/12/2016 while the second batch included 25 tanks that were sent on 10/12/2016 this numbers suggest a deployed force equivalent to an armored brigade and as Christian Triebert published in Bellingcat the license plates of the Leopard 2s corresponded to the 2nd Armored Brigade from the First Army.

But how are they normally operated?

Normally they fire from hastily constructed field fortifications originally intended for the infantry and built with soil walls, they are not specifically designed for tanks because otherwise they would have much higher walls covering their sides and fronts. If they would have enough time and resources they would have dug firing positions for the tanks because those protect them much more than those walls made with soil.

We have not seen any well prepared dig in fire position for the tanks what suggests a low participation and low coordination with engineer units who would have build much better positions an effort that in the end could have saved a lot of vehicles and crews.

Look at the images above and just compare the levels of protection offered by the fortifications done in both firing positions for tanks, on the left one a M1 Abrams during some drills, on the right one a Leopard 2A4TR in Syria.

Normally Leopard 2s stay behind the soil walls and provide fire support from positions overlooking ISIS territory and firing the main guns and the coaxial machine guns, however we do not know their level of coordination with the FSA.

We also think that apart from the own abilities of the tank, the Turkish are using their Cobra OTOKAR light wheeled vehicles to support fire control of the MBTs during the operations, this technique is also used by other armies like for example the French AMX-56s along the VBLs.

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OTOKAR Cobra in Syria.

It is also interesting to note that there are a lot of photos of Turkish soldiers with relatively rare and specialized weapons like the AIAW sniper rifle posing with the Leopards, these kind of rifles would be just used in very specialized sniper units particularly from the SFs a kind of forces that you would not normally expect to be operating with armored units, this gives us an idea about how hybrid the warfare is where the Turkish Leopard 2s are acting.

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As the Leopard 2s are normally acting as mere means of fire support and not as part of purely offensive and advancing forces they are not probably expected to need fire support and so probably the artillery and mainly the 155 mm SPH T-155s are not acting primarily under the tank units requisitions what is always  a defect.

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In normal conditions the 155 mm SPH T-155 Firtina would have operated in close coordination with the Leopard 2A4s.

However we are still speaking about a low-intensity operation and so the tanks deployed do not act in a normal way and in the end they are being used such as during urban fighting, that is disperse tank units and decentralize at a certain degree the command, so for example if tanks are needed at some area they do not deploy even a single squadron but just one or two tanks to provide fire support, this is because ISIS has so low numbers of troops deployed that you do not need the whole unit to be participating during the fire support phase.

While in a normal situation Turkish armored units would be coordinated with jets, helicopters, artillery and other assets, in Syria they just look to be coordinated with small units of mechanized infantry mounted on ACV-15s (a heavily improved Turkish version of the M-113 APC) that in our opinion normally act as security elements for the small tank units.

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Most times the true spearhead of the OES is the FSA units supported by tanks and by the artillery provided thanks to the SFs accompaining the FSA and using recognisment technics, the air force looks to be operating both attacking predetermined objectives and providing immediate air support.

But the main problem is that the FSA that in theory is supposed to be the infantry spearhead has a different language (Arabic) a lot of times they have no experience, low moral and a low level of training, and finally they are mainly a light force without their own heavy material what in the end and in spite of the Turkish heavy material supporting them does not compensate their deficiencies.

Also it must not be underestimated the high proficiency that ISIS tank hunter units have reached in Al-Bab, a sophistication never seen before in Syria or Iraq with even simultaneous double ATGM strikes and a good coordination to attack from different sides, and a good knowledge of the terrain that has allowed them to take some advantages and produce some small but jazzy successes.

Does the cat have a thick fur?

While some have argue that the tanks were hit by TOW-2A ATGMs we find it very unlikely, first of all because throughout the war just a few TOWs have end on hands of ISIS, and secondly because ISIS has plenty of Soviet/Russian ATGMs, some of them captured and some of them bought to rebel groups.

Those ATGMs are mainly 9M111 Fagot, 9M113 Konkurs, 9M133 Kornet and 9M115 Metis, the last one depending on its variant 9M115 or 9M115-1 has a medium range from 1 to 1,5 km, also all of them work with HEAT warheads and the less powerful one is the 9M111 with a penetration capability around 400 mm of RHA.

In theory the frontal armor of the Leopard 2A4 would resist the Fagot, could resist the Metis and the Konkurs and would not resist the Kornet.

However the sides is another story, maybe at the frontal part of the sides of the Leopard 2A4 where the heavy skirts are situated we might be speaking about a 40% of the armor on the front, while in  the other parts of the sides it would probably be even less.

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Look at how thin the side armor is.

We estimate that the armor of the chassis would be between 3 to 8 cm thick of conventional steel depending on where are we speaking while at the low part of the chassis we should add the wheels and the light skirt acting as spaced armor what adds an unknown protection, but still the most exposed parts are the sides of the turret and the high part of the chassis because there is no extra armor on both.

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At the left of the soldier we can appreciate the heavy sideskirt blocks of first generation that were later replaced in the Leopard 2A5 version.

However Leopard 2s are designed to also protect the critical flammable or explosive components inside the tank, and overall the ammunition racks wich are protected and even every round has its own plated container.

The tank has two main ammo racks, the first one with 27 rounds  storaged at the front of the chassis at the height of the gunner, that one is very well protected but it could be vulnerable to mines that hit the low glacis or beneath the hull, the other rack is at the left-back part of the turret and it has 15 ready to use rounds, these ones are by far the more exposed, especially to hits on the sides of the turret.

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Leopard 2A4 ammunition storage

It is not necessary to say that every ATGM would be able to penetrate the side of the Leopard at almost any place and after the penetration just the protection measures and the luck in some way foreseen by the designers will allow the tank and its crew to survive.

Also it must be said that normally just one penetration is not able to destroy a tank but rather to cause it heavy but repairable damages including heavy wounds and even some deaths to the crew.

In the case of Syria all of the hits documented were on the right side of the Leopard 2s leading to one of the worst situations, also some tanks were captured and utterly destroyed by ISIS or by Turkish airstrikes.

Let’s have a look at the image below, it shows an absolutely annihilated Leopard 2A4, everything that could have exploited did it, but let’s have a closer look at the front of the chassis because that part is the one that has suffered more damage, for example the ammo rack of the turret has also exploited but it has not meant that the turret has been cut in to pieces, while the chassis has been. In our opinion what these evidences suggest is that such damage can just had been done by an air launched missile, in the case of the Turkish Air Force probably an AGM-65 Maverick, because the frontal chassis is very hard to destroy as it has been done in this case.

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The damage over the frontal part of the chassis is incredible moreven if we take in to account that it is the most armored part of the MBT.

Also during the ISIS video about the captured Turkish positions with a few Leopard 2s apparently they were all well preserved and so posterior images of Leopard 2s could have been taken after those captured ones were destroyed by ISIS or the Turkish. In the end those are too complex and unknown vehicles for ISIS and they are as useless as those M1 Abrams captured by Daesh in Iraq that were later destroyed.

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Disgracefully we have not been able to establish the conncetion between any of the ISIS ATGM videos and other tank photos, with the exception of the next  group of images where we can see an attack on two Leopard 2A4s, thanks to Christian Triebert for help us at this point.

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In this case the ATGM was more likely a Soviet 9M111, 9M113 or 9M133, at the position  attacked there were two Leopard 2s and one T-155 SPH. The position was comprised of a soil wall divided in two spaces at the front where both vehicles were situated to fire, for the protection of the sides they mistakenly trusted in to a civilian wall that did not cover even the taller part of the chassis.

The after effects of the engagement can be seen on this image.

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Despues de capturados 1
The second tank that was hit: Here we can appreciate the effects of the penetration.
Despues de capturados 2
The first tank that was hit: In this case we can see the hole on the turret to allow the energy of the explosion get out upwards in case of the 120 mm ammo rack was penetrated.

 

While both tanks suffered a brutal impact the second one got completely burnt off, judging the angle for the ATGM we can clearly see that the most exposed part of that tank was the rear turret, where the ready to use 120 mm rounds were placed, the weaker spot of the tank. The impact led to a catastrophic kill that probably disembogued in the death of some members of the crew.

The first tank resisted much better the impact, as we can see on the images of the strike and the images above the tank chassis was very angled and also the missile hit the heavy sideskirts what might have helped to decrease the power of the shaped charge once it entered inside the tank, while some damage and injuries may have been caused the crew still was able to turn back the turret, this hit could have also been close to affect the main 120 mm rack storage but it looks like it wasn’t able to reach it what shows why German designers added those heavy sideskirts at the flanks, to protect that side where a powerrful hit could ultimately reach the main 120 mm storeroom.

V8

Also it is interesting to note that on the image above we can see how the upper part of the turret where the 120 mm ammo rack is has been opened, in theory this part of the tank was deisgned to blown up to direct the explosion of the cartridges outside the tank, that is why it is very typical to see that part of the Leopard 2 turret blown up in cases of penetration.

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ATGM 1:  9M-115-2 Metis-M approaching to its target in Syria.
Cuarto Leo 2 2
ATGM 1.2: 9M115-2 hits the target

On the sequence of images ATGM 1 and ATGM 1.2 we can see the impact of a powerful 9M115-2 Metis-M medium range ATGM with a high penetration capability on the side of the Leopard 2 again a very weak spot for a powerful ATGM as the Metis-M is.

In similar hits in T-72 series tanks in Syria where the better frontal armor of the Leopard 2A4s is not an advantage because the T-72s have around 80 mm of steel in the sides probably nearly the same as the Leopard 2s, we have been able to observe that catastrophic kills are much rare in the German tanks.

Some tanks were destroyed by IEDs or mines, the fact is that normally AT mines are designed to disable the tank by destroying the tracks but not to completely blow them of, however IEDs which are “homemade” and can be produced with different amounts of explosives can be very powerful, especially if common 152 mm or 155 mm HE artillery rounds are used.

In the next image we can see a totally destroyed tank whose number plate was “195 | 526” and according to some sources it was disabled by an IED or a mine.

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The “195 | 526” tank.
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The “195 | 526” tank.
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The “195 | 526” tank.

If we have a closer look at the paper from an unknown source that has proven itself very accurate the tanks that revceived heavy damages had a “Ağır hasarli” (heavy damage) note, while those with very light damage did not have any indication as we can see in the original paper by comparing it with those tanks in the videos released by ISIS.

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The original paper with the information that later proved very reliable and accurate.

But the “195 | 526” tank appeared with no damages measure and in theory it was affected by an IED or a mine, so why the images show exactly the opposite? In our opinion it is just part of the ISIS propaganda, also the turret does not look to have suffered a prolonged fire of its 120 mm ammunition but rather a huge explosion after the ammunition was taken out, what explains the lack of burning marks and how the terrorists would have placed the explosives on the floor of the tank.

In the end it is very likely that this tank suffered a mobility kill because of a mine and later ISIS was able to loot and then put some explosives inside it to prevent the Turkish from recover their cat.

For example the Leopard 2 that appears below looks to have step over an AT mine or an IED because the right track is destroyed while the other one is in well state, and also it has not caused the destruction of the tank because it would not have been able to reach the main racks, this matches with the description given about the tank with the number plate 195 | 541.

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Leopard 2 MBT right track destroyed.
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Leopard 2 MBT right track destroyed.

Also the next one looks like the 195 | 537  tank because in the description it was said that it was “under the wall”.

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Very likely the 195 | 537

In social media it is claimed that it was loaded with a bomb and the fired with a M82A1 Barret what caused its destruction.

Interestingly almost a 100% of the hits of mines, RPGs and ATGMs over the Leopard 2s happened on the right flank of the tanks, this has a lot of sense as far as the position of ISIS was in Al Bab, and Turkish tanks were approaching from the west while approximately two kilometres at the south were placed the ISIS AT positions within range to fire the long range ATGMs two kilometres inside FSA-Turkish held territory to hit the Leopard 2s that were aiming at Al-Bab letting their flanks exposed as the next image explains

V4

 Final analysis & recommendations

Improve the coordination with FSA or even mix them with mechanized units would lead to a better level of effectiveness in te battlefield while it would also help to strength the FSA forces.

A much high level of coordination with the engineers for recovery missions and to build better protected firing positions for the tanks would help a lot to prevent ISIS from detect and hit Turkish tanks, while also the Leopard 2s should take more advantage of their mobility and do not stay in  the same position after a few shots it is important to speed up the fire support processes tor reduce detection, engage and fire by ISIS AT weapons against Turkish armor.

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Panzer IV dug in a well built position, this kind of fortification must be provided by Turkish combat engineers.

About the recovery missions they are very important because some of the tanks captured by ISIS were taken because they have small mobility problems that could have been solved by repairing them or by evacuating them from the frontline before ISIS took the position, also some destroyed tanks that should also be taken out from the battlefield were abandoned and stayed in the same places even one month after they were destroyed.

Better use of ground reconnaissance assets in this kind of low intensity hybrid warfare is vital, it is needed a major use of armored vehicles and infantry survey to find places to be attacked by the tanks in ISIS lines and to determine what firing positions are best suited to protect the tanks from ISIS AT weaponry, along with the reconnaissance the use of more anti-mine warfare equipment and even vehicles would be useful to prevent some dangerous situations.

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The Cobra MARS-V is the survelliance version of the Cobra, a vehicle that could have been very useful against ISIS during the battle of Al-Bab.

The organization of self-destruction air units 24/7 ready to destroy enemy tanks captured by ISIS could be a good idea to prevent them to use those tanks as propaganda or give us disgusting susprises in the future.

Also some of the actions of ISIS able to take some small positions where the Leopard 2A4TRs were stationed shows a certain lack of sedulity about the security element comprised of mechanized infantry mounted in ACV-15s that should establish a strong perimeter around the tanks to prevent ISIS to sneak in to their positions something that tends to happen in hybrid warfare.

Also allocate more M88A1 recovery vehicles for the units in the front to provide them better means for recovery missions along reserves of armored units as full time quick reaction forces to counter-attack, even with support of helicopters against possible ISIS nigh raids or similar ones could be a very good idea.

All the measures told above are free or very cheap however some heavy measuers could be taken to directly protect the Leopard 2s as we are going to see.

The Turkish company ASELSAN designed a very interesting prototype based on the Leopard 2A4 called Leopard 2 NG (Next Generation) which between other things adds a lot of modular armor and a cage armor on the sides.

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Leopard 2 NG designed by ASELSAN a very interesting upgrade from which part of the technology could be aplplied to the Leopard 2A4TR, pay attention to the enhanced protection on the sides.

While Leopard 2A4 is probably protected enough against most threats at the front the sides are another story and in our opinion the addition of the Leopard 2 NG armor to the sides and some ERA could make them well protected against ISIS threats however it is unlikely that without the ERA even the Leopard 2 NG could stop a Konkurs or even less a Kornet at the sides, along with these measures the study of new better protected ammo racks even by reducing them a little could be a great idea.

Finally the addition of a LWR or a similar system to alert the crew from enemy incoming ATGMs could help to save a lot of tanks and lives.

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Also do not forget that we offer military analysis and OSINT services.

We also want to thanks Christian Triebert for helping us and for his excellent article in Bellingcat.


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A deep look at the heart of ISIS war machine: From tactics to doctrine

On this article we will have a deep look at ISIS from the military point of view and so we will analyze their structure, materials, way of fight and different tactics and tricks used by them on the battlefield.

If you like it I would be grateful if you could share it.

Table of content:

  1. ISIS in the attack
  2. ISIS on the defense
    1. Terrain, positions and dynamics
    2. Antitank defenses
    3. IEDs and mines
    4. Antiair defense
  3. Evolution: The egg wants to be a condor
  4. The individuals
    1. VBIEDs
    2. Artillery 
    3. Drones
    4. Snipers, sharpshooters and designated marksman
    5. Technicals and DIY vehicles
    6. Chemical warfare
  5. Deductions about their military organization

 ISIS in the attack

Depending on the degree of surprise foreseen by ISIS planners they may employ different tactics to assault a position and they are not tactics so far from those used by a conventional army. Most times they do a dismounted assault with fire support from technicals and sometimes spearheaded by a tank at whose back the soldiers advance, this is a very primitive tactic but still useful against low quality forces like those from Iraq and Syria are in most cases.

Another times when there is a big plain between them and their enemies and especially against Kurdish backed by a powerful air force they advance fast and supresively, this time the VBIEDs will open the way while mechanized infantry units advance mounted in DIY armored vehicles moving at top speed against enemy positions and at the same time they open suppresive fire against the enemy positions, by doing this so fast they are provoking in the enemy a panic reaction that ultimately leads to give up the position because of the fear to be surpassed, essentially this is known as a mounted attack a very risky option from the point of view of a conventional army mainly compensated by its fastness.

When they are dismounted the assault tactics of the infantry are quite typical, the main part of the weaponry consists of assault rifles either from AK or M-16 series, also a few machine guns normally from PK series are used to provide suppresive fire, hand grenades are used before rush in the enemy position or to clean close spaces, finally RPG-7s are used against fortified positions like walls, barriers or wickets.

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The best units of the Caliphate also employ fire and maneuver tactics on a very basic way

The use of technicals varies a lot between different forces but normally they comprise 14,5 and 23 mm guns while sometimes they can also mount 57 mm S-60 guns or M1939 37 mm guns or even recoilless rifles.

Tanks are used as mobile shields and the infantry advances from behind also they are used for heavy and direct fire support and just under some conditions they are able to engage enemy tanks, also it is very likely that normally because of the expensive and scarce ammunition for the main gun they just use coaxial or top mounted machine guns.

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The use of tanks in urban warfare has appeared just a few times in ISIS videos but maybe this is an underrepresented way of use in ISIS media because they normally record big victories and urban warfare is a slow advance one and so it doesn’t provide the glorious image that ISIS wants to present on their videos, also it must be said that the most common antitank warheads are PG-7V and PG-7VM both capabe of penetrate every T-54, T-55, T-62, Type 59 or Type 69 in Iraq or Syria with the exception of the T-55(A)MV and so use them during urban engagements is a risky option.

By knowing their armor, the protection capability that it offers and the mainly offensive spirit of the tank they normally use them during their fast attacks in the open, with especial success against the Syrian Army and their allies during flanking maneuvers to cut their rearguard and always accompanied by motorized or mechanized infantry to assault and occupy positions.

Also about the how the attack is performed they normally attack a position from multiple axes and a whole area by attacking from various sides, especially exploiting weak points in the defensive system and trying to threat the main supply routes by doing a pincer maneuver and taking advantage of the fear to be surrounded of the defenders.

During the course of the operations ISIS must be 24/7 aware of the enemy air forces and so the deployment of advanced air observers to prevent as much as possible the incoming enemy air strikes is a likely option to be used, but to be fair the best ISIS way to deal with enemy air supremacy is the use of misleading tricks against the air observation.

It is very likely that normally they move in groups as small as possible because otherwise the probability of detection and engage by enemy jets is higher but if they move in groups of just two or three cars they can be considered possible civilians and so do not be attacked, but when ISIS suffers a heavy offensive and they need to move large reinforcements in a short period of time it is unavoidable to send large convoys, when doing so they expose themselves a lot but still it is very likely that they try to move during the night when in theory air supremacy is less effective.

For what I have been told normally Daesh basic combat unit is called “Fassil” and is equivalent to a motorized squadron, it usually consists of three SUVs Toyota, one of which would be responsible for the logistic functions, this type of unit would consist of about 10 men armed with assault rifles, one or two machine guns, one rocket launcher and some hand grenades, of course ISIS is not as homogeneizated as a professional army and so this structure is not omnipresent but still this may give us a clue on how they work.

The organic addition of one logistic SUV sounds like a guerrilla evolution created when they needed high autonomy and independence on the battlefield against the US, this kind of unit might be much more difficult to locate and decide to engage by an air force and also it reduces the logistics footprint for the Caliphate, while its disadvantages would be the difficulty to concentrate and coordinate large forces in brief periods of time, but it is true that the combat environment being faced by ISIS is relatively slow and numerically low in comparison with what a conventional army would expect what compensates the disadvantages at a certain degree.

Another typical trick even used by Iraq during 1991 consists in generate big columns of smoke by burning some crtitical places with very inflammable content, also against the link officers from artillery or the air force they also burn large amounts of tires to generate a smoke screen not as dense as when a big installation is burnt but still effective for a short period of time, this kind of tactics were heavily employed when the great operation to reconquer Mosul started.

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Smoke is the true AA cover of the Caliphate on the battlefield

Like the smoke Daesh tends to use the cover of sandstorms to launch large assaults and we have also seen some night raids by their best units. some of them even using silenced pistols.

Another common tactic used by ISIS is related to the use of large amounts of dummy vehicles simulating military ones, of course this is a very old trickc but it is still interesting to find it on ISIS hands. It is possible that at a certain degree the old Saddam’s officers are behind something like this because it corresponds to high intensity warfare not well known by guerrilla groups.

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ISIS wood dummy vehicles simulating a T-54/55 and a Humvee

We also think that dummy vehicles are not massively used but just when they want to confuse enemy air survelliance and make them spend time and ammunition on false targets while the main operations are ongoing in other part.

It has been relatively common to see some strange large inventions consisting on a kind of big umbrella totally covering a tank, this could be used during the displacement phase to the concentration areas before being clearly detected or even during an offensive to protect them from the jets above by hidding the vehicle.

Most of these tricks are more effective against the SyAF whose airplanes most of the times are outdated and so their systems are not so capable to detect this kind of ruses.

Another common trick is related to the use of tunnels at every level, from the front to the homefront to move and store resources, to live in, to be protected from air strikes and artillery before an attack and to safely move troops from one point to another in to an area  with prepared defenses, like a village or a town.

ISIS on the defense

Terrain, positions and dynamics

The predilect ISIS defense is established in a medium size urban area with some civilian population to be used as human shields, a big net of tunnels to comunicate different key points and a well knowledge of the surroundings to avoid the enemy  to enter the town but if it happens they may have a few strongpoints well entrenched with a lot of IEDs deployed to resist.

Sometimes when they want to cover a retreat from a  position they let a few suicides at their back and they get out during the night, also I have not confirm it but it is possible that sometimes they use light forces equipped with technicals and a few ATGMs to delay the enemy and screen the movements of the main force.

ISIS understands well that the objective is not to build positions with very gross walls but rather difficult to locate because once it is known it is just a matter of time that jets, helicopters or artillery will reduce it to ashes.

Oposite to the ISIS “doctrine” has been the finding of tanks being used as pillboxes on fixed positions covered at the top by the roof of a house, while we are not sure if it was because of the lack of fuel for their tanks in our opinion it just represents a desperate decision to use a valuable tank that otherwise would be absolutely useless.

Some elements normal for every army like dig trenches, put obstacles for the vehicles, clear the fields of fire, demolish buildings to cut roads, build barriers to avoid enemy to see them or even use blankets to cover certain areas or certain gaps on tunnels are also typical of Daesh.

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ISIS isn’t lame and they also use conventional field fortifications

Sometimes we have even seen them build something like petrol moats to act as fire barriers and above all again generate smoke against enemy observation both from ground and air.

The defense on open terrain is uncommon because it means huge disadvantages for them because of the lack of heavy armor, materials to build defensive lines in deepth, unexperience on that field, and exposure to enemy observation especially of the fixed positions.

We think that populated locations are their guide and reference to establish defensive positions and it is very likely from their point of view that every urban stronghold has the means to protect its position and at a certain degree its surroundings with its own material, while there must be something like “motorized reserves” by using technicals and civilian vehicles ready to be moved when one stronghold is attacked by a superior force, this may specially work in terms of ATGMs, a relatively expensive, scarce and vital weapon to defeat the core of the armored forces attacking them, however if the fight goes inside the town things would work different and evolve to something very close to an attrition battle.

While in our opinion there is not a clear way of defend by ISIS in terms of formations like a perimeter defense or a reverse slope or so in our opinion they tend to use a mix of them and specially prepare ambushes in some relatively open terrain inside the towns, in places like parks, parkings, or big buildings or complex of buildings with some open ground surrounding them.

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The huge urban ambush settled by ISIS on December, 2016 at Al Salam hospital in Mosul was a big reverse to the Iraqi forces and prolonged the Mosul battle

Antitank defenses

ISIS antitank defense engagement ranges table

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Green = normally used, Yellow = sometimes used, Blue = rarely used

How does ISIS engage armored forces, and especially tanks?

If we think it cold,  ISIS on the ground is facing an outmatching armor, in Iraq they fight against M1A1 Abrams and T-72Ms, in Syria they fight against T-90s, T-72Bs from advanced variants and other capable tanks, and against Turkey they are fighting against Leopard 2A4s and M-60Ts, try to battle them as equals by counterposing their own armored forces wasn’t a viable option for ISIS and so they have developed quite complex but not new antitank tactics.

The best long range AT weapon of ISIS is the ATGM, while they have operated a lot of ATGMs we can say that the 9M111 Fagot, 9M113 Konkurs and 9M133 Kornet are the most common among their forces, while missles like the Konkurs or the Kornet maybe are not able to deal at the front with the most advanced tanks like the M1A1 or the T-90 it is sure that every ISIS ATGM hitting the side will probably penetrate and cause big damage to even the most advanced tanks.

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ATGM is the best AT weapon on hands of ISIS, on the image a 9M133 Kornet

At medium ranges from approximately 1.200 or less metres the best ISIS weapon is the recoilless rifle, normally a 73 mm SPG-9 but also B-10s or M40s, very effective against modern tanks if they hit them on the sides but they need a certain degree of training to be fired, in exchange they are much cheaper than ATGMs and so they can also be used against lightly armroed vehicles and infantry.

Finally at close ranges like 400 metres or less they use RPGs, normally RPG-7s but sometimes M72 LAWs or similar one-shot bazookas, also for area denial or to canalize enemy forces they employ important amounts of minefields using both conventional or DIY mines, they also employ heavy weapons like 12,7, 14 and 23 mm calibers against lightly armored vehicles and hand grenades or even antitank grenades at very close range.

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The most widely used RPG, the RPG-7 is a very useful tool in hands of ISIS

Another tactic used by ISIS to engage enemy armor consist in use large concentrations of mortar fire, that is a very common tactic among profesional armies but not so common in the case of non-state actors with small amounts of ammunition at their dispposal, it has not been widely documented but on the claimed page of 15 vehicles destroyed by ISIS in Syria two or one were because of likely or confirmed mortar fire, this gives us a percentage of 7,5% to 14% by comparison the ATGMs, the most effective weapon of the Caliphate represented slightly more than 50%. The problem is that some weapons are better suited to be recorded than others and mortars are not good for that purpose because you need more than one camera and they are not as predictable and spectacular so maybe they do not appear on ISIS propaganda.

While some may ask why for example mines/IEDs are not so effective in my opinion it has a big relation with a good training because sometimes apart from the most obvious avenues of approach like roads or lanes they are not very good at identify the enemy attack directions and also they don´t have massive amounts of this kind of weapons, something very important when you want to deny areas.

Since the begin of the SCW on 2011 the use of ATGMs by every side has been very basic, normally it was a group of a few men with the launcher and the missiles who sighted and attacked an enemy force, but since the begining of 2017 we have seen an increasing refinement on the ISIS way of use of ATGMs, especially against the Turkish armor in Al-Bab.

For example let’s imagine a normal situation near Al-Bab, a formation of 4 Turkish M-60Ts is facing ISIS, M-60T is impermeable to every ISIS weapon so they must be attacked from the sides, but this unit is formed covering a big arch and so if one ATGM is shot it is very likely that one of the tanks will be able to locate the place where it was fired and open fire, from this situation arises a new necessity for ISIS, that is to strike more than one vehicle at the same time, a tactic that also leads to a bigger capability to destroy enemy vehicles because they will not have as much time to react.

We have seen a few recent double and even triple simultaneous ATGM strikes against a single unit of armored vehicles, what is a big problem to deal. This kind of attacks at the same time from different positions indicate a relatively high level of train and coordination because it requires to have previously selected the positions for more than one ATGM launcher and an officer to coordinate the action or at least pre-establish a common plan.

And that is the other point, the experience show us that ISIS has been able to correctly guess the best firing points against enemy armor and also a flexible enough force to move the scarce resources when and where they are required.

Also sometimes they use tunnels to position themselves behind the armored forces and strike them from the back where they are very vulnerable.

IEDs and mines

Daesh gathered a lot of experience about IEDs during the years of the occupation when they were normally planted on the expected roads where the foreign convoys were going to pass. There were a few types of IEDs like those using an impact fuse or those remotely activated by a phone call, also when attacking civilians, another field where AQI accumulated extensive experience, the use of artifacts with timeserver was possible.

But IEDs are not just hidden bombs but also for example DIY hand grenades used to equip their infantry.

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While the use of this kind of artifacts to ambush Iraqi or Syrian forces as it was done during the occupation has had a paper during the Caliphate operations it is true that the main objective has shifted in favor of some new roles.

Fist of all when ISIS retires from a location they let it filled with hundreds of hidden booby traps used to continually produce loses to its enemies and so slowly bleed them out, also they are being used as a delay tactic to slow the enemy advance by randomly, and a lot of times hastily putting them on the likely enemy avenues of approach.

Finally we find quite likely that they use them as a typical mean to strenght some positions by putting fields of IEDs in front of them or to canalize enemy attacks towards some pre-established kill zones.

ISIS Import Most Material for Bombs and IEDs from Turkey: CAR
ISIS field of IEDs

Antiair defense

As Oryx has stated along some very interesting articles ISIS has try a lot of things to do some damage at the air forces that harass them, some of the quite desperate actions like use D-30 guns on AA role or mount captured air-air missiles on trucks to use them as AA platforms have been an obvious fail and they are just intern psychological medicine to show their population and troops that they have specific AA units dedicated to shoot down jets while their true effects are null.

However the ISIS inventory of AA weapons consist of 12,7 mm, 14,5 mm, 23 mm, 37 mm and 57 mm machine guns and guns along with some MANPADs and a few ZSU-23-4 Shilka AA vehicles.

All of those weapons are effective against low flying aircrafts, but specially against helicopters because the jets normally don`t fly so low, for example the AA machine guns may have ranges as much as 2,5 km, 57 mm guns well managed  may have a range of about 4 km and MANPADs depending on the model 6 km approximately.

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ISIS ZPU-2 double 14,5 mm machine gun on a technical, the recoil of this kind of armament mounted on cars might lead to an important lose of precision

This kind of material just allows for a close point AA defense situating the armament around the objective to protect it, however if they want to give a certain AA cover to some units who are likely to receive helicopter attacks the use of MANPADs AA units mounted on highly flexible civilian vehicles is probably their best option, especially when considering how scarce those weapons are, also the distribution of a few men armed with MANPAD forming a triangle may let them cover bigger areas, but if this consists just in one MANPAD units without coordination with the other ones their efficency must be very low especially considering the very low fly and use of countermeasures by modern helicopters, what makes aircrafts even harder targets for the MANPADs.

While in theory mos of this material is probably near the front close to the expected areas to be attacked by enemy helicopters it is very likely that some important fixed objectives or even important persons of ISIS get a point AA defense protection against possible raids of the Western Special Forces who will normally employ helicopters to go at the back door of ISIS letting those helicopters relatively exposed to this kind of systems.

In the other hand while a ZSU-23-4 vehicle could be relatively effective at close range defense if it is not able to use its radar it is nothing else than a self-propelled ZSU-23-2 and as happens with heavier AA systems ISIS has not been able to operate those radars.

Since the very first moment was obvious for everyone that ISIS wasn’t going to be able to defeat an air force but below that it is true that they have been able to shoot down a few helicopters.

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This modern Iraqi Mi-35M was destroyed by an ISIS FN-6 MANPAD

Evolution: The egg wants to be a condor

While the first archaic origins of ISIS are even before 2003 it was after the US invasion of Iraq when the group grew up, especially since Al-Zarqawi took its lead until he was killed on 2006, during that time Al Qaeda Iraq, as they were known, adopted extremely violent methods and at a certian degree the way of think of that epoch  has influenced the current ISIS lack of diplomacy derived from their radical think and actions.

Around 2011 the organization was badly wounded so they decided to begin a new “policy” based on attack prisions to liberate religious extremists and recruit them fot the group, later they also took advantage of the Syrian Civil War that had started on 2011 it is possible that during the first moments they acted as a moderate group to get financial and material support something that worked for some time.

But during 2013 the group took off his mask and occupied Raqqa and a big part of East Syria by expulsing the rebels and the Kurdish and again using very violent methods, this provided them with a huge amount of material, territory and population, at this point the true Islamic Caliphate was bornt, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 when ISIS made use of their penetration among Iraqi sunnies to hugely defeat the Iraqi Army around Mosul, a victory that was related to the sunnie disenchantment with the sectarian shia politics from Baghdag and an excellent use of psychology during the battles by ISIS.

When the victory over Mosul was completed ISIS was in full expansion of its power, its territories and above all their army.

They sewed a new army in a brief period of time, while it was still based in light infantry and guerrilla material and philosophy they get huge amounts of APCs, IFVs artillery and tanks what lead to the creation of the first armored and mechanized units, birefly they captured the next heavy material:

  • Artillery: D-30, M198, D-74, D-44, D-20 guns
  • Tanks: Their core is comprised by T-54/55 and Type 69 (a Chinese copy of the last) while also a few T-62s and T-72s are part of their forces, they also captured M1A1 Abrams, M-60Ts and Leopard 2A4s but they decided to destroy them because of their complexity and other reasons.
  • APC: BTR-80s, MT-LBs, M-113s, M117s, Humvees, MRAPs
  • IFV: BMP-1s

Apart from that they also captured huge numbers of personal equipment, ammunitions and light weapons, including mortars, ATGMs and recoilless rifles.

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ISIS MT-LB and M-113 both APCs used by the group in Iraq

This new DIY combined arms force comprised some conventional artillery, tanks, APCs, survelliance drones, guerrilla motorized infantry units using technicals… While for example a typical T-55 is an outdated tank with a relatively bad armor unable to resist most of the AT weapons on the battlefield they still offer protection against most of the weapons. For example the Kurdish weapons available to penetrate a T-55 would be just their RPGs, their few ATGMs and their recoilless rifles.

The low availability of those AT weapons and the lack of training and experience on their use led to easy ISIL victories by even using outdated tactics from WWII, also the combination of tanks as rams along with the technicals to provide fire support and the dismounted infantry to assault positions was a strong capable force for the Syrian standards.

At that time the violent ISIS methods provoked an international response that led to rearm the Iraqi army, send Western forces and suit a strong air coalition able to make a lot of damage to ISIS, from the military point of view the violent ISIS methods provided them with some advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: it gave them international fame and in terms of radical sunnism it means that they became the beacon for the yihadis around the world and their supporters, also when their enemies were not surrounded they tended to runaway in certain situations thanks to the psychological impact of the very violent ISIS actions spreaded by their excellent propaganda media and the local support of part of the population.
  • Disadvantages: all of those advantages gave them fast victories but it also meant that when a force was completely surrounded or it was composed of non-arab or non-sunnie groups they tend to fight fiercely making ISIS advance much harder thanks to their pitiless diplomacy. Also their declarations and acts activated a strong international response that ultimately was vital to defeat ISIS, of course the main element was the air coalition leaded by USA that was able to provide tactical support to Kurdish and Iraqis on the ground and even do damage in the deep of ISIS structure. Also they even get some unnecessary enemies among radical sunnie groups with whom they could have get agreements.

When this final step happened the pressure from the air coalition but also from the SyAF and the RuAF forced them to adapt to a new kind of warfare where they were been continuously harassed from above and so the use of their new hardware was more difficult and required more caution decreasing its effectiveness forcing them to adopt new tricks and tactics.

When ISIS arrived to Syria it was an Iraqi group with around 2.000 fighters, but one year later they controlled a big part of Syria and Iraq with a few tens of thousands of troops and plenty of heavy material, while explain this growth is difficult we think that some reasons are related to the calling effect of their victories among local populations and a intelligent diplomacy towards yihadi groups both from outside and inside Syria and Iraq what ultimately allowed to the creation of a big army in a short period of time able to defend very distant fronts against multiple enemies.

The individuals

VBIEDs

The suicide bomb vehicles are used as a second artillery to produce a first shock before the main echelon assaults the position or as a ram against an entrenched force or a strong point, but the suicide drivers are a relatively expensive and limited weapon on hands of ISIS and so they are probably assigned to a unit depending on its mission and with a pre-stressed amount of VBIEDs at disposal giving the field commander a silver bullet to be used during the critical moments of the battle.

The experience of ISIS with VBIEDs was gathered during the insurgency against USA but those VBIEDs where relatively unpowerful and badly protected in comparison with the threat that we are facing now.

There is probably a certain high degree of centralization to on one hand recruit, brainwash and test suicide drivers and on the other hand design the vehicle to be used and the explosives to fill it.

A typical VBIED would be a chevy with a few hundred kilograms of payload from wich a part is deviated to add armored plates to the vehicle and so protect it from the weaponry that the enemies of ISIS are going to use desperately and in mass against it, this extra protection along with a relatively high speed (probably superior to 100 km/h) make these artifacts a big threat on the battlefield.

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In comparison to Iraqi insurgency VBIEDs a typical ISIS VBIED is better protected, has less explosive payload but a bigger shrapnel effect thanks to the armor, but in the end it largely depends on the DIY deisgn
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The effects of a VBIED explosion are huge, on this image we can even appreciate the expansive wave

Artillery

Most units from ISIS have mortars and at a certain degree other types of DIY artillery with a low accuracy but with some level of effectiveness when used in mass.

Conventional artillery is not very common and normally it is just seen on the main offensives as a support force along with mortars, although the degree of ability to manage the artillery pieces may vary a lot between different units.

The artillery tends to be used in the same way as VBIEDs to produce a shock before the first assault or even to pound enemy positions especially to defeat some enemy resistance that may slow the main axis of advance or weak fortified positions. They have the problem that most of their pieces are not self-propelled and so they can’t follow the assaulting force at great distances because they are very exposed to enemy aircraft while being towed through the roads.

The best piece of the artillery parque of ISIS probably is the M198 155 mm US howitzer a very accurate gun able to provide a deadly firepower, but the most used piece is by far the Soviet designed D-30 light howitzer, a 122 mm gun relatively easy to manually operate and with a relative light weight perfect to be transported and even hidden from air coalition jets, also its low weight makes it suitable to be installed on platforms such as trucks meaning that ISIS has self-propelled artillery, however a civilian truck is not well suited for pieces like this and so their performance is relatively bad in comparison with military dedicated SPHs.

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ISIS captured M198 gun
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ISIS firing a M198 howitzer captured from the Iraqi army

While conventional artillery is assigned to units depending on ther mission and are probably part of fully dedicated artillery units it is very likely that most of the ISIS units have at least an organic mortar support group or something close to it but still it is dubious the level of  ammunition availability for this kind of weapons with high rates of ammunition expenditure.

The mortars mainly comprise they typical 81 and 120 mm calibers and as we have already told looks like every ISIS unit with certain size has its own support group based on mortars, a deadly weapon if its is well managed.

Drones

Apart from propaganda the main use of drones by ISIS has been to recognize the terrain before the offensive and probably to correct the artillery fire, so we have seen a lot of times how unarmed ISIS drones were shoot down, this is because they were doing survelliance missions a very useful tool for the ISIS military planners.

The appearance of ISIS armed drones is quite recent and as it could be consider by some as a mere psychological weapon in my opinion is just another weapon with a big psychological impact but also with some level of capacity to help ISIS wear out its enemies by its massive use and with an increasing level of menace, especially to unarmored vehicles transporting ammunition or uncovered infantry in the open.

We are not sure about their way of use but we think that it could be a mix of direct support assigned to a unit or also they act as lonely hunters looking for opportunity victims close to an area of operations limited by its autonomy.

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What is sure is that they have been trained to choose their objectives because in our opinion they are looking for open roofs on the vehicles, this is becuase their main aerial bomb is based on a 40 mm grenade with a kill ratius of 5 metres and a very small penetration capacity, so the best way to use it consist on hit somewhere open with a lot of explosives on it, like Humvees  but also tanks with the hatch open, a tactic that in spite of be quite homely  has proved effective and at a low degree can be considered as another anti armor ISIS weapon.

Also it has some advantages like the low cost of civilian drones and the operators training, and also the cheap ammunition used of course if they face EW equipment they have no chance, but an even bigger force of drones might be the backbone of a low-cost terrorist air force that must not be underestimated.

Snipers, sharpshooters and designated marksmans

The use of snipers (or similar ones) by Iraqi insurgency groups is not new, when they were facing the West superior firepower most tactics shifted to hit & run because it denied the Western to make use of their superior firepower by calling air support and so between these hit and run tactics the sniper played an important role as it was able to do deadly shots from the distance and stay undiscovered.

Generally speaking some of the most common long range rifles on ISIS hands are the U.S M24 using a 7,62 x 51 mm cartridge, the Mosin Nagant using a 7,62 x 54 R cartridge and the king of the popularity, the mythical SVD Dragunov or its foreign copies.

As an idea of their potential the SVD series are accurate enough at around 700 to 800 metres on hands of experienced snipers and with a powerful scope magnification.

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ISIS sniper unit aremd with different versions of the Russian SVD rifle

Snipers are assigned to the units more as sharpshooters than as snipers to support the forces during the attack or for attrition tactics along with IEDs or so inside urban environments.

A very typical combo is the usage of snipers along with IEDs in abandoned towns, for example when ISIS forces left Sinjar to the Kurdish they let it filled with booby traps and a few snipers to produce some more casualities to their enemies a very efficient cost/effective way to deny the complete control of some area to the enemy and make him divert some sources to it.

Also it must be said that the camouflage knowledge of the main part of the ISIS snipers is quite basic being reduced to some mimicry, also a lot of times they act as anti light armor by using high caliber sniper rifles like the Sayyad-2 able to penetrate Humvees, M117s, M-113s and other light armored vehicles.

Technicals & DIY vehicles

Technicals or as we can call them “gunneds” essentially are civilian SUVs or trucks with a weapon mounted at its back for direct fire support, normally those weapons have no plating and they usually mount the next weapons:

  • MMGs and assault rifles: sometimes on some vehicles they add firing ports to let the troops inside open fire with its light weaponry, a good improvement while doing mounted attacks.
  • HMGs: DShKM 12,7 mm, and KPV, ZPU-2 or ZPU-4 of 14,5 mm
  • AA guns: ZU-23-2 double automatic gun of 23 mm, 57 mm S-60 guns on trucks and sometimes even 37 mm M1939 guns or their Chinese copies.
  • Recoilless rifles: this is not a common upgrade but when it exists normally uses a U.S M40 of 105 mm mounted on a jeep, this upgrade means a lot because it is thought to be used as a tank hunter by fastly moving to a position an effective tactic against badly trained tank crews.

But sometimes they directly design absolutely new and huge vehicles that I call gunned castles which add a lot of bulletproof plates and a few levels with HMGs mounted on them what creates very strange combinations that remind us to some WWI vehicles. Their objective is to safely transport as much fighters as possible while at the same time those vehicles provide a great suppressive fire in all directions, something vital during frontal attacks on a plain.

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Look at this monstrosity, T-72 chassis, cage armor, two levels, one turret, two HMGs, one DShKM (12,7) and one KPV (14,5)

In the end we can say that gunneds are the IFVs of the poor and because they are put on good platforms like civilian Toyota pick ups they have a good mobility, a good cross country ability, a low logistic footprint and a high reliability, something vital in combat situations.

Chemical warfare

From all of the abilities deployed by ISIS on the battlefield the more complex at the moment by far is the use of chemical weapons in limited amounts, while we are not sure if it has been done by trained fighters or by a grave recklessness this is a worrisome issue.

While the use of chemical agents by ISIS has been limited unfortunatelty we can not say that it has been anecdotic nor ineffective.

Most likely all agents came from captured Syrian and Iraq installations where those weapons were already produced and storaged.

But chemical weapons have several things to be known  and considered  before use them, like direction and speed of the wind, humidity, concentrations needed of the agent to both incapacitate or kill, the use of the precursor substances from the binary system and the dispersion vehicle/weapon to be used what is not an easy ability for an originally guerrilla group.

The ability of ISIS to produce operative chemical weapons is very unlikely so their capacity on this field is closely related to the amount of ready to use ammunitions captured in Syria and Iraq and the level of availability of the dispersion vehicles.

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Black circles mean places where documented ISIS chemical attacks have been confirmed

If we take a look at IHS map where 52 confirmed chemical attacks by ISIS have been documented we can see that most of them have taken place against Kurdish both from Iraq and Syria, in our opinion this could be related to a correct ISIS think about the lower readiness of Kurdish against this kind of weapons especially because in theory they haven’t get NBC equipment and training so they are very exposed to gases. Also the use of the agents tends to be more psychological than tactical.

At the moment the degree of mortality reached suggests the use of some common chemical agents like the sarin, the chlorine or the mustard gas, the three present in the Syrian inventory, but fortunately none of those is one of the “top tier” gases of the Syrian government which are the tabun and the VX. From those agents on hands of ISIS the sarin is by far the most powerful.

Training

Of couse the different weapons of ISIS may require different trainings but above all a light infantry training is probably the one that ISIS has been mainly providing, this comprises the use of assault rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, RPGs, basics about movements, fire and maneuver, camouflage, orientation, close combat, basic field fortifications…

Some normal units probably get a specialized training about ATGMs, artillery, snipers, MANPADs, mortars, recoilless rifles and in certain occasions about armored vehicles.

A big part of ISIS comprising experienced yihadis do not need training and also a big part of the local militias supporting them are badly equiped and not very trustable so they probably don’t receive a good preparation.

Finally the core of their recently erected force comes from people and volunteers recruited inside and outside the Caliphate, then they are probably classified, most of them have no military experience but a few may have done the military service or even have served in Syrian or Iraqi army and so they could have very valuable experience as mechanized infantry, light infantry or tanks, if so they may receive new specific training and been sent to those especial units.

It is very likely that most of the light infantry training and especially that locally recruited is trained at its own Wilayat to take advantage of their known of the terrain, society and climate, but this arises the question about their training standards.

We have seen how pupils from ISIS held territory get some ISIS-edited books, so if it has happen at the educational level it is very likely that it has also happened at the military level and so they have produce their own brief and adaptative military manuals for the training camps and their instructors.

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ISIS edited English book for their pupils

Unfortunately we don’t have much information about ISIS training and especially about their local recruiting system, their training philosophy or the duration of the instruction phase.

Deductions about their military organization

The main civilian administrative unit of ISIS is the governorate (Wilayat) with a governor and his subordinates and advisors.

The growth of ISIS was too large and too fast, especially in the case of  Syria where they were not as present as in Iraq before 2013, their fast evolution adding groups of globalist yihadis, Chechens, Iraqis and Syrians in both scenaries with huge fronts comprising deserts and towns, desertic and mediterranean climate, and been  facing very different threats including Iraqi Kurdish, Syrian Kurdish, rebels from Syria, Turkish supported forces, SAA, Iranian militias etc could not have been done without a great level of decentralization, but the problem arrives when we try to decide what is the true level of military decentralization.

Let’s take the defense of Al-Bab as an example, was it just a defense organized by the corresponding Wilayat or there was a declared  theatre of operations charged to one commander independent from the Wilayat? In our opinion the tactical defense in normal situations is mainly responsability of a Wilayat and its commander by providing most of the resources needed to successfully accomplish the mision, while there must be a certain degree of coordination with the Central HQ to apply for new resources and some big strategic or operational operations are prepared by the Central HQ that sends specific elite units and commanders to the area.

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Outdated map of ISIS Wilayats

There could be a high level of central control over some especial units like tanks, conventional artillery, suicides, drones, highly experienced fighters from outside or MANPADs to be provided at critical moments. At first look we may think that with the increasing pressure of air supremacy the movements may have get more difficult and so the move of fighters and material from the Central HQs in Mosul or Raqqa at distant places is very risky, but this is probably mitigated by placing the bases and training camps near the most likely operational theatres, by this way the Central HQ just would need to give the orders and the especial units would be relatively close to their destinations and so the possibility of been caught by enemy aircraft largely decreases.

Also it is very likely that apart from the political orders and some basic military instructions the autonomy about planning and acting in the battlefield is very high and especially in everything referred to warfare material, for example the Chechens units probably retain a certain degree of autonomy in the battlefield and they buy or get their own weapons from loot, black market or ISIS arsenals at their will.

Finally ISIS presents us a very monolithic and solid image but would be interesting to know how the hierarchy works among different human military groups like Chechens, tribes, Syrians or Iraqis because the existance of so much differences among those groups that sometimes are even lobbies inside ISIS can make the Caliphate much splitted than we actually think.


I would like to especially thanks to Historico for his excellent article about the use of tanks by ISIS and also to Purple Olvie for his excellent work about ISIS VBIEDs and to Oryx for his nice cover of some ISIS battles in its blog.

You can help me to do more articles by donating me some money via paypal here.

If you want to contact me for questions or to write an article for you, you can contact me on minstertipo@gmail.com orat my Twitter account @MinsterTX.

Illuminating the new Turkish M-60T1 Sabra deployed in Syria

Before anything I want to thanks in first term to @trubia_t but also to @TarMilus and @WithinSyriaBlog for give me their valuable opinion while I was doing this article.

On this article we are going to have a closer look to the new Turkish tank that has also appeared in Syria, the M-60T1 Sabra.

Fist of all the M-60T Sabra is a very deep upgrade designed in Israel and based on the Magach 7C tank which is in turn based on the M-60 Patton, the Israelis called it Sabra Mk. II but when it was chosen by the Turkish Army it was called M-60T from “Türkiye” (Turkey).

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Israeli Magach 7C, the father of the M-60T Sabra, also called Sabra Mk. II

In the end of August, 2016 Turkey launched the Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) with the aim of kick ISIS from some areas in the nort of Syria and also there was a hidden objective to prevent Kurdish from unify their cantons in Syria and ensure survival of some Turkish backed rebel groups.

Since the begin the armored spearhead of the Turkish and its allies during OES was the M-60T Sabra, the tank was quite good and was able to even resist on the front the impact of a 9M133 Kornet, one of the most advanced Russian ATGMs, this is not a small matter as far as the M-60T in the end was based on a tank from the 60s, but despite of that the numerous impacts on the sides of the M-60Ts showed that they still were very vulnerable to the ISIS ATGMs.

The amount of losses of men and material was increasing at a relatively high rate and it finally lead to the appearance of the Leopard 2A4TRs to replace at a certain degree the losses suffered by units equipped with the M-60s.

So the situation was relatively bad and Turkey came up with a new upgrade that has probably been conceived in less than a few months, unless it was a previous secret program, so this is why the M-60T1 probably bornt, to meet the demanding requirements of the new Syrian operational environment.

On 7th February some images of a tank called “M-60T1” merged and that was quite strange as far as we didn’t hear nothing about that upgrade before.

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First image of the M-60T1 Sabra in Syria, via @huseyinbozan

The first interesting thing is the Remote Weapon Station (RWS) that replaces at the left-back of the turret the M85 HMG weapon station, that was not remotely operated, the new RWS uses a typical 12,7 x 99 mm M2 Browning HMG, the new RWS looks like is a N-2000 from the Turkish company Nurol Makina who has put it on the Ejder Yalçin 4×4 armored vehicle, also it is possible that this product has been developed with some know-how from ASELSAN or could be a SARP RWS from the same Turkish company with a lot of experience in the field of RWS design.

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Ejder Yalçin with one variant of the N-2000
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Ejder Yalçin with another variant of the N-2000, this one looks closer to the one featured in the image of the M-60T1

The company provides some information about the N-2000 that is stated to use a DNP-28 ASELSAN night and day vision system and also it can be rotated manually from inside between -20° and +60° in elevation and 360° in azimuth (multi-turn).

In opposition to most tanks in the world the M-60 was one of the few with a commander’s machine gun fired from a protected station without the need to expose himself to the bullets or the shrapnel when firing the machine gun so the motivation of this improve can not be the protection, we think that the reason is due to the optics and at a less extent because of the standarization.

The N-2000 possess good optics, specially for night operations much better than those of the original M-60T M85 machine gun, and also it is the standarization which is a minor point. The M85 is a machine gun only operated in the M-60 series  and, in spite of be similar to the M2 Browning it is still different and could have some disadvantages against the M2 that is used in a lot of vehicles and by the Turskish infantry and so it has a less complex logistic.

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M-60T1 in Syria

The other main improvement of the M-60T1 is the “artifact” located at the side of the turret, but before treat it we would like to say that the opinion emitted about the artifact must not be taken as a fact because we are far from sure to be able to say what it is exactly.

The artifact looks comprised of two different elements that we have not been able to ID, the one on the top looks like a Laser Warning Receiver, a device that would be useful just against the 9M133 Kornet, the only laser guided missile on hands of ISIS, the device below could be a camera or a dazzler, the camera could be useful for driving and at close range during urban fighting, but for us it looks fixed so at a certain degree it wouldn’t have sense to install such a big camera fixed in the end we find this second theory less likely.

The lower part of the artifact could be a TLUS LWRS from ASELSAN but unleast some better images appear we can’t be sure.

Also the theory of a non hard-kill APS similar to the Shtora-1 has some weak points as @trubia_t notest because just 8 smoke-launchers on the tank are not enough to fully exploit a system like this.

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*SARP or N-2000 RWS

So in our opinion the most likely and desirable device would be a dazzler similar in concept to the “red eyes” of the T-90’s Shtora, essentially it consists in a special light able to confuse the automatic part of the guidance system from a Semi Automatic Line of Sight (SACLOS) ATGM, a system present in most ATGMs in Syria, with the exception of the 9M14 Malyutka that is MCLOS, that would explain the fixed position looking at the sides of the device, as far as the M-60T front has shown to be very well protected against all the threats in Syria and so the tank  does not need protection on the front but rather on the sides were nearly all of the impacts had happened.

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T-90A with the dazzlers of the Shtora-1 activated

It is interesting to note the arid camo paint on the M-60T1 what proves the especialization of this upgrade for the Syrian scenario, at the moment just the Leopard 2A4 TR and a few M-60Ts deployed in Syria had get something like it while most M-60Ts even keep the typical Turkish green camouflage.

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M-60T Sabra in Syria with arid camouflage

We are not sure if this is a prototype or an incoming massive upgrade for M-60Ts but it is interesting to note that Turkey has recently launched a competition to upgrade 40 M-60A3s, 40 Leopard 2A4s and 120 M-60Ts, while of course this has no direct relation with the M-60T1s it makes us think that maybe the M-60T1 is a temporary patch until those upgraded tanks are ready.


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